Metallica's 'Ride the Lightning': The Story Behind the Iconic Cover Art | Revolver

Metallica's 'Ride the Lightning': The Story Behind the Iconic Cover Art

From Stephen King's 'The Stand' to a highly sought-after printing error
metallica 1985 GETTY, Fin Costello/Redferns/Getty Images
Metallica, 1985
photograph by Fin Costello/Redferns/Getty Images

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By all accounts, the making of Ride the Lightning, Metallica's second album, was far smoother ride than the sessions for Kill 'Em All.

For the follow-up to their landmark full-length debut, Metallica booked three weeks at Sweet Silence Studios, in Copenhagen, Denmark, a huge step up from their previous recording experience. "We recorded Kill 'Em All, at this local studio in Rochester, New York, and I think the biggest artist that might have used that place was the singer of Foreigner for some demos or something," Kirk Hammett recalled to Rolling Stone in 2014. "But we were really excited to be at Sweet Silence Studios because that's where Rainbow did Difficult to Cure. We were excited because we liked the sound of that album, and we were looking to get a similar sound for our album, using that studio and the same engineer, Flemming [Rasmussen]."

metallica ride the lightning cover art

Indeed, Rasmussen proved to be a sympathetic collaborator for Metallica. Though he was completely unfamiliar with the band before the sessions began, he immediately grasped what they were trying to do, and went to great lengths to not only help them capture the sounds they were striving for, but also to coax the best performances possible out of them.

It also didn't hurt that the band had become a far more cohesive unit by February 1984 — when the Sweet Silence sessions began — than they had been during the recording of Kill 'Em All. While he had essentially served as a last-minute replacement for Dave Mustaine on the previous record, Hammett was now a full-fledged, road-tested member of Metallica, and this time he was able to compose guitar solos for several songs before the group even entered the studio to record the album.

While bassist Cliff Burton's burst of anti-industry frustration had given Metallica the name of their previous album, it was Hammett's horror obsession that ultimately inspired Ride the Lightning's title. "I was the one who spotted the phrase 'Ride the lightning,'" he told Metal Hammer in 2016. "It was when we were recording the first album, when we were staying the house of this guy named Gary Zefting. I was reading the book The Stand by Stephen King, waiting to do my parts, and I read that phrase."

In King's novel, career petty criminal Lloyd Henreid finds himself incarcerated in the maximum-security wing of the Phoenix municipal jail, following a drug-fueled murder spree across the southwest. Lloyd's lawyer, Andy Devins, outlines the upcoming trial process for his none-too-bright client; while he expects the jury to find him guilty, Devins says he'll appeal the decision all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, if necessary — though he expects the court will quickly reject the appeal. When Lloyd asks what happens then, an exasperated Devins replies, "Why, then you go on to Death Row at state prison and just enjoy all that good food until it's time to ride the lightning."

When Hammett mentioned the evocative phrase to James Hetfield, it motivated the frontman to pen the song "Ride the Lightning," which he wrote from the standpoint of a convicted murderer sentenced to die in the electric chair. With its connotations of primal violence, unleashed energy and unexpected thrills, the phrase also seemed to describe Metallica's musical approach, and the group soon adopted it as a suitable title for its new album.

Created by AD Artists with direction from the band, Ride the Lightning's cover featured an electric chair suspended amid a dark blue sky, with bolts of electricity emanating from a glowing Metallica logo. Though quite a bit cheesier (if we're being honest) than Kill 'Em All's cover image, there was an intriguing aspect to it, as well. It was almost as if the empty chair was awaiting its next victim — or at least suggesting that you'd better strap yourself in before putting the record on.

Ride the Lightning was released on July 27th, 1984 via Megaforce Records in the U.S., and around the rest of the world on a variety of small labels. (Six weeks later, the band would sign with Elektra Records, who re-released the album that November.) Oddly, the version released in France via Bernett Records came out emerald green rather than dark blue due to a printing error, a mistake that robbed the original cover image of its dark mystery. But since the Bernett issue was a limited pressing — estimates have ranged from 400 to 2,000 copies — it has become one of the rarest and most sought-after collector's items in the Metallica catalog, with copies (when you can find them) going for as much as $200. Be warned, however: bootleg copies of the green Bernett cover abound, so hang onto your cash unless you're absolutely sure it's the real deal.